The future of print

February 17, 2010, 2:35 PM UTC

Today Fortune has an interesting assemblage of pundits opining on the future of print — books, magazines, newspapers, all the objects that convey information, news, fiction and other effluvia on what columnist and radio host Kurt Andersen (right) calls “dead trees.”

It hurts me a little bit that nobody asked me what I think. After all, I work for Fortune, and I pretend to be a pundit. My qualifications for punditry go back decades. True, I didn’t start an online destination like Digg or spectacularly blow up several magazines like another of those selected who I’m too afraid to mention because of his media bulk, but I’ve been offering bad advice to people for a long time now, and have been almost honored several times.

At any rate, while directing you to the site, which contains a bunch of good opinions, I think I’ll take this opportunity to offer my own. The general wisdom among those who have made their livelihoods in the print realm is that it will soon be transcended by electronic communications. This has been noted here previously in various exhortations on my part. If I had a nickel for every party I’ve been to recently with book, newspaper and magazine people keening over the death of their medium, well, I’d have a lot of nickels. And that general view is sustained by the punditry on display today elsewhere on this site.

I suppose it’s easy to come to that conclusion. At the Consumer Electronics Show, it was difficult to walk without tripping over new iterations of the e-reader, and a national paroxysm of sweaty joy accompanied the launch of the iPad, which is being already heralded as the savior of literacy.

But I don’t know. Wherever I go, the people I see who have e-readers are all graybeards. I use that term advisedly. Some of them are women and have no beard at all, at least most of them. But almost to a man/woman, those who have quickly adopted the digital reader are the borderline elderly. You see them bending over their little e-readers trying to make out the huge letters in whatever dim light is available, scrolling through the thousands of screens that make up your average novel.

True, I read much of my news online these days, as do most of you, I’m sure. But I also read newspapers. So does my son, who is in his twenties, and all his friends, who are a surprisingly well-informed bunch. They also find Facebook boring, as do a  lot of people I know under the age of 50 and over the age of 19.

If you go to a newsstand anywhere, there are literally dozens and dozens of magazines, too. I don’t get that. If the medium is dying, why does my 14-year-old step-daughter have a treasured collection of glossy dead trees in a box by her bed containing an archive of Elles, Glamours, Seventeens and InStyles? Yeah, she’s online too much. But there are those magazines. Not to mention the massive, dog-eared vampire books she totes around like totemic talismans.

I don’t like getting all my news from the web. I don’t like reading books on e-readers. I have been an early adopter of every digital implement and owned every generation of gizmo since the Kaypro lunchbox computer. But I don’t think the future holds nothing but eternal life for our forest friends. I think they still have reason to be concerned.

Those who are making the business decisions in the magazine, newspaper and book industries just might be mourning their own deaths way to early.  And those who still see some life in paper may be positioning themselves far better for the opportunities that lie ahead.

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